At the Fork in the Road for Students, Educators Can Make the Difference, Author Says

Two boys are named Wes Moore. Both grow up in fatherless homes in Baltimore. Both struggle in school, and run into trouble with the police. But one Wes Moore wins admission to Johns Hopkins University and Oxford. The other earns a life sentence in a Maryland prison. In his book, The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, Moore confronts the “other,” and finds that there are no neat answers to the disposition of fate: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

In a recent conversation with NEA Today, Moore talked about the unfolding of his life’s direction, and how educators and educational policy can make a difference to the “others” out there.

There’s a passage in the book, where you describe a conversation with (the other) Wes that takes place in the prison’s visiting room. You write, “I asked a question: ‘Do you think we’re all just products of our environments?’” The other Wes answers, “I think so, or maybe products of our expectations… We will do what others expect of us. If they expect us to graduate, we will graduate. If they expect us to get a job, we will get a job. And if they expect us to go to jail, then that’s where we will end up too…” With that in mind, how much do you think the expectations of educators matter?

WM: I think it is one of the biggest factors of determination. When I was a kid, I would literally skip entire days of school, and I had teachers who wouldn’t ask me anything and they thought they were doing me a favor by lowering expectations because they figured I was dealing with things that other kids weren’t dealing with. But they weren’t doing me any favors. And I had other teachers who said, ‘I don’t care what you’re dealing with! These are my expectations and you need to meet them.’ There are huge implications and ramifications of expectations.

In the book, you describe how school doesn’t work for you—or the other Wes—for a really long time, and then fortunately, you find the right fit. What about all the other kids, who don’t ever find the right fit?

WM: We need to do a much better job of personalizing education from the perspective of a student. The fact is I learn differently from my peers, I understood that from a young age. I don’t understand things like the rest of my friends… When I finally found a space that made sense to me, I was finally able to do well. We have to do a better job of finding and allowing that space to all of our kids.  Kids learn differently, and that’s okay.

Also, we can have all the conversations we want about school reform, but there has to a fuller list of things to consider. We need to take the opportunity to be creative and innovative and imaginative. How can we have a more holistic conversation with communities? And with families? How do we define education? How do we define its merits? How do we define the parameters? For too many people it begins when a child walks into prekindergarten and ends at the end of the school day. That’s not right. Education is a never-ending process, and we’re all still going through it.

Who exactly are the educators? And who exactly is responsible? I think the definition is far too narrow. If mentors, if ministers, if parents, if everybody doesn’t see their role in the education of a child, then quite honestly we’re putting an unfair burden on teachers—as if it’s all their fault! As if they’re the only person who makes a difference! It’s got to be bigger than that…

You also describe meeting the admissions counselor at Johns Hopkins University, and how much this person’s interest meant to you. There are millions of adults in schools who could play that role in somebody’s life—what would you say to them?

WM: The bottom line is we all do better when we have more people involved in the conclusions and outcomes of our kids.

In the book’s epilogue, you struggle with the question: “What makes the difference?” And I know there are so many similarities between you and Wes, but it seems there’s also one critical difference: Your mother graduated from college, while Wes’ mother was forced to leave school after the Reagan-era cuts to Pell Grant funding. Do you think this made a difference?

WM: Quite honestly, I can’t help but think how different his life would have been if she had been able to finish school. It’s about this idea of social capital, expectations, the people you surround yourself with… It’s not that Wes’ mother didn’t care about Wes. We work with a lot of kids, and over decades I can probably count on two fingers the number of parents who don’t care about their kids.

But the Pell Grant story—the reason I included the Pell Grant story wasn’t just because it was a powerful story, but because anybody who doesn’t understand the implications of that moment is missing the whole point. That was a huge occasion in her life, and it should inform how we discuss policies and policy implications. This stuff matters.

If we want to spend our time gutting programs that help college completion, that keep teachers in classrooms, there will be long-term implications. Particularly when you look at things like the budget sequester—I get that we need to be critical of programs and budget them appropriately—but we’re going in and blindly hacking things. We’re making really bad long-term decisions.